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Last Updated: Monday, 10 October 2005, 22:28 GMT 23:28 UK
Review: The Sea
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News website

John Banville
John Banville's novel won the UK's leading book prize
The first 500 words of John Banville's The Sea, which has won the 2005 Man Booker Prize, leave one worried about getting involved in an overly-poetic marathon of a novel.

Is there really any need to describe the sea as "that vast bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead-blue and malignantly agleam" on page one?

You almost feel as though you are in danger of choking on excessive adjectives before you've even started. Perhaps Banville, a former newspaper sub-editor, is resistant to editing.

But this book soon opens up into a genuinely moving, perfectly sophisticated study of grief, nostalgia and disappointment.

Max is an art "expert" mourning his wife who returns to the site of a decades-old tragedy to unpick the strands of the major episodes of his life.

His reminiscences of his childhood encounter with the Grace family are more vivid than Max's recent past.

There is the enigmatic daughter, close to Max and distant at the same time, and the mute son with whom she enjoys a strange, symbiotic relationship. Then there is the persecuted, shy governess and the brash father and knowing mother.

Something sinister

Max remembers himself a dullard, moving amongst the fantastically-bright stars of the Grace constellation. He calls them "Gods". Socially and intellectually at ease, they are everything Max believes he can never be.

But a thread of something sinister goes through this family, and Max is the unwitting architect of its downfall.

Banville hops from distant-past to present and everywhere in between, but he remains controlled at all times.

And when he wants it, the author's descriptions are piercing and brilliantly controlled.

Describing a grotesquely obese guest at the boarding house where he is trying to understand his childhood happenings, Max notes her "big pale pudding of a head" and her "powdered wattles jogging".

His fellow boarding house resident is the Colonel, pitched note-perfectly as a man fighting to avoid revealing his Belfast accent or any sign of emotion, like his sadness over the callous disregard of his daughter.

Uncomfortably accurate

At times The Sea is uncomfortably accurate in its portrayal of those whose lives have been stunted by myriad setbacks.

There are moments of forced erudition, but this is a very human novel with an engagingly sympathetic central character.

Grief and love are the hardest things to write about and generate empathy in the reader. There are few novels that succeed.

It is not like a Keanu Reeves movie. It is complex with strange symptoms.

And although Banville has created something that is less than a masterpiece, he has taken these themes, underpinned them with a carefully teased-out plot, and married them to his fantastic talent for description to create a satisfying whole.

The Sea is published by Picador


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